Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Val Lewton Blogathon: The Seventh Victim (1943)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Val Lewton Blogathon, which is taking place October 31, 2012 and is being hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Stephen at Classic Movie ManFor a complete list of the participants and the films covered, check it out here…and before the lights in the theater dim I’ll need to warn you that this review contains spoilers.

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), a young student at a private girls’ academy, is called into the office of the school’s headmistress, Ms. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith), to receive some distressing news.  Mary’s sister Jacqueline, who’s been footing the bill for her sister’s education, is delinquent in paying Mary’s tuition (she’s six months in arrears) but Lowood and her assistant Mildred Gilchrist (Eve March) have discussed the matter and will arrange for Mary to work as an assistant teacher at the school to cover her expenses.  Mary, however, is more concerned about Jacqueline’s whereabouts and decides instead to travel to New York City in an attempt to locate her; Ms. Lowood agrees to finance the excursion.

Arriving in the Big Apple, Mary has a conversation with Esther Redi (Mary Newton), Jacqueline’s partner in a thriving cosmetics business, La Sagesse.  Ms. Redi was previously communicating with the school on Jacqueline’s behalf but she explains to Mary that their relationship ended when Jacqueline sold her stake in La Sagesse ten months earlier.  Another employee, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), tells Mary that she saw Jacqueline not too long ago at an Italian restaurant nearby…and when Mary visits the eatery, she learns that Jacqueline rented a room from the couple running the restaurant, the Romaris (Chef Milari, Marguerita Sylva), but hasn’t been seen since.  A search of her room reveals only a gilt chair…and a hangman’s noose positioned over it.

Note the number on the apartment door.  This is not a good omen.

Mary’s subsequent investigation into Jacqueline’s disappearance introduces her to a number of disparate characters.  There’s seedy detective Irving August (Lou Lubin), who takes an interest in Mary’s plight and accompanies her to La Sagesse after hours…where he is killed by an unknown assailant.  (Fleeing from the tragedy, Mary winds up on a subway and encounters two “drunks” escorting a third man…who turns out to be the murdered detective!)  She also makes contact with lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), apparently a boyfriend of Jacqueline’s, who arranges for Mary to get a job as a kindergarten teacher while she continues to search for her sister.  Ward is keeping secrets from Mary, however—he’s actually Jacqueline’s husband…and he’s falling in love with Mary.

Then there’s frustrated poet Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), who first makes Mary’s acquaintance at the Romaris’ restaurant but later proves most helpful in getting additional information on Mary’s whereabouts.  His friendship with psychiatrist-author Louis Judd (Tom Conway) eventually leads all of them to the Greenwich Village headquarters of a Satanic cult known as the Palladists, who welcomed Jacqueline into their coven but have now issued a sort of “fatwa” against her because she betrayed the group (in her sessions with Judd).  They were holding Jacqueline hostage at La Sagesse while plotting her death (the Palladists are pacifists, but contradictorily, betrayal of their order is deemed punishable by death) when August stumbled onto Jacqueline and she killed him with a pair of scissors.  Judd, Jason, Gregory and Mary convince Jacqueline that the police will understand the circumstances in the private eye’s death, and she’s to hide out in Mary’s apartment before confessing to the police.

This symbol, found in a book on black magic by Hoag, will be used as a trademark of La Sagesse beauty products (La Sagesse is French for "the way").  Four parallelograms + three sides of the triangle...makes seven.

The Palladists learn where Jacqueline is hiding and she is brought before them so they can mete out punishment.  They won’t kill her—but knowing Jacqueline’s fragile state of mind (she talked about committing suicide on several occasions) they attempt to convince her to do away with herself, still she refuses.  On her way back home to Mary’s, she’s stalked by a hitman hired by the Palladists, but she manages to elude him in a crowd of actors heading over to a neighborhood bar for fun and frolic after a performance.  When Jacqueline reaches her apartment above the restaurant, she encounters a woman named Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) who’s been living in the apartment next door.  Mimi is very ill, and will no doubt die soon…but she’s tired of waiting for death and has decided to live life to the fullest before her time has come.

Judd and Jason have paid the Palladists a visit, where they learn that the group was holding Jacqueline but have since let her go.  Judd relays this information to Ward, who tells Mary that putting Jacqueline in an asylum for a much needed rest is his only avenue…and he also confesses his love for her.  As Mimi leaves her apartment, dressed to the nines, she hears a loud thud coming from Jacqueline’s place—Jacqueline has put her noose and chair to its ultimate use as Mimi descends the stairs.

The reputation of motion picture producer Val Lewton (1904-1951) has always rested on a series of low-budget horror films he oversaw at R-K-O from 1942 to 1946—productions that were usually priced at a maximum of $150,000, with short running times (around 75 minutes) and branded with lurid titles such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie (they were test-marketed in audience groups before going before the cameras).  Lewton possessed an amazing poetic sense and a feel for cinema, overcoming budgetary limitations with a strong grasp of literary conventions, and understanding that horror is often most effective when it is suggested, not shown.  The shadows and low-lighting of Lewton’s productions—many of which foreshadow the film style that eventually became known as film noir—worked to a tremendous advantage in presenting a psychological form of horror once described as “the fear of the unknown working on you.”

I’m fond of all of the Lewton horrors, but my favorite is The Seventh Victim (1943).  While pros and cons can be offered up as to whether or not it’s the producer’s masterpiece (some make a strong case for Zombie, others say Cat People or The Body Snatcher), it’s my darling because it highlights a fascinating world of foreboding pessimism, where terror lurks underneath a mundane, everyday surface, and where the “big city” is unrelenting in its depiction of nocturnal menace.

On the first three Val Lewton pictures—Cat People, Zombie and The Leopard Man—Lewton assembled a production team that included director Jacques Tourneur and film editor Mark Robson.  The success of the three films prompted R-K-O to split up the teaming of Lewton and Tourneur, reasoning that they would be on the receiving end of twice as many successful pictures if they worked separately.  Indeed, R-K-O had planned to move Lewton up into the “A” category of films…but they balked when Lewton announced that he wanted give the untested Robson a chance to direct.  The studio gave their producer an ultimatum: find another director or languish in B-picturedom.  Out of loyalty to Robson, Lewton agreed to stay put…though you could also argue that the producer realized he’d be able to sneak things past the studio as long as he was working the low-budget side of the street.

And the themes which Lewton “smuggled” past the censors!  The topic of suicide was a definite no-no according to the Production Code, and yet Seventh Victim concludes with the title character taking that very same way out.  The theme of death permeates the film, bracketed by the John Donne quote at the beginning (where it is etched on a stained glass window) and end (spoken by Jacqueline) and present in many of the movie’s characters (Judd, Jason, Mimi)…presented as unhappy people with meaningless existences who nevertheless maintain the will to soldier on.  Jacqueline’s character is depicted as someone who longs for the release that death will bring, and when R-K-O told Lewton to lay off the messages in his movies the producer informed them that Victim did have a message: “Death is good.”

The Palladist coven of Victim was also controversial for its time.  Satanism had been touched upon previously in films like The Magician, Seven Footprints to Satan and The Black Cat, but Seventh Victim treated the subject with a mixture of both reverent menace and the casual mundane.  In preparing the screenplay with Charles O’Neal (Ryan’s dad), scenarist DeWitt Bodeen (who had also worked on Cat People and its “sequel,” Curse of the Cat People) arranged to attend a meeting of a group of Satanists in N.Y.C. to help with the treatment…and later described the members as the same elderly folks knitting and crocheting in Rosemary’s Baby (though that group was depicted in a lighter, almost comedic vein).  There’s no doubt that the Palladists in Victim are formidably evil…and yet they’re made up of seemingly ordinary and benign people, best represented by one-armed dancer Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent), who plays the piano in one memorable scene.  (How did she lose her arm and was it related to her dancing?  We’re never given this information.)

Other subtexts in the film include a recurring theme of doubles, represented by “doppelgangers” like Mary (the good sister) and Jacqueline (the sinister one), and the characters of Judd (the cynic) and Jason (the romantic poet).  Good vs. sinister is also depicted in the film at one point by twin staircases leading up to Judd’s apartment, in which Jacqueline is staying (Judd jokes to Mary that he prefers to take the left entrance, or the more “sinister” one).  There’s also some subtle lesbian undercurrents; not only in the characters of Jacqueline and Frances (who’s distraught when Jacqueline is attempting to kill herself by drinking the wine furnished by the Palladists) but also the minor, seemingly inconsequential characters of Ms. Lowood and Miss Gilchrist at Mary’s private school.

Only in a Lewton film would something as simple as a morgue be rewarded with a literary allusion.
The Seventh Victim remains the most “noir” of all the Val Lewton horror films.  It’s essentially a detective story with a touch of the occult/supernatural (I think the detective story aspect grounds it in believability), with the doubles theme also reinforced in the title—there were six former Palladists murdered before Jacqueline, who will become the “seventh victim”…and there are also “seven” detectives investigating the events in the film.  Four of them are amateurs: Mary, Ward, Jason and Judd…while the professionals are represented by August and the two men (William Halligan, Richard Davies) hired by Ward to track down wife Jacqueline.

It’s also interesting to note that the film has subtly influenced a number of movies that came after it.  A justly famous shower scene, in which a vulnerable Mary is confronted by Mrs. Redi (who’s on the other side of the curtain), no doubt made an impression on either director Alfred Hitchcock or author Robert Bloch when Psycho went into production.  The sinister atmosphere of Victim can also be detected in Jacques Tourneur’s Lewton-like Curse of the Demon, not to mention The Innocents and Burn, Witch, Burn.  The nod to Victim by Tourneur’s Demon is fitting since it’s clear that director Robson learned a great deal “at the feet of the master”; the “night walk” sequence, in which Jacqueline frantically tries to return home after being released by the Palladists, is echoed in the earlier Cat People, Zombie and Leopard Man.

I'm probably the only person in the world who laughs at this...but the "drunk" on the left in the subway sequence is Wally Brown, who at the time was partners with Alan Carney in R-K-O's feeble attempt to create a comedy team to rival (Bud) Abbott & (Lou) Costello.

Seventh Victim also marked the film debut of Kim Hunter, who would later go on to score an Best Supporting Actress Oscar for reprising her stage role as Stella Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as grace such film classics as Tender Comrade, A Matter of Life and Death, Deadline – U.S.A. and the first three of Planet of the Apes films.  Tom Conway, best known to film audiences as the Falcon in R-K-O’s successful detective flick franchise, actually reprises a role he played in the earlier Val Lewton film Cat People (though considering the outcome in that film, you have to assume that the “Louis Judd” in Victim either takes place before Cat People or in some parallel universe).  The remaining cast—Jean Brooks (a memorable presence with her black wig and straight cut bangs), Isabel Jewell, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage, Hugh “Leave it to Beaver” Beaumont and Ben Bard—give superb performances, often speaking their dialogue in a quiet whisper that heightens the suspense of the tension-filled atmosphere.  It’s a shame that Elizabeth Russell didn’t get any sort of billing here, though it could be argued that’s because hers is a small part (the “Mimi” character is a literary allusion to La Boheme, her dress at the end has to be a Cat People in-joke).  Still, the underrated character actress made quite an impression in other Lewton movies like Curse of the Cat People and Bedlam, not to mention cult faves like The Corpse Vanishes and Weird Woman.

And I also chuckled when I saw that the librarian helping poet Hoag is played by Sarah Selby, best known to Gunsmoke fans as "Ma Smalley," the owner of Dodge City's best boarding house.

Upon its initial release, The Seventh Victim did not make the critical or box-office noise that greeted the first trio of Val Lewton films: The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther posited that the film might have made more sense if it had been run backward; Howard Barnes at The New York Tribune groused that he fell asleep during it.  Appreciation of Victim really didn’t take hold until after the war, when critics and audiences alike slowly began to appreciate the foreboding, nihilistic world presented in the film and the “banality of evil” represented by the seemingly ordinary but no less formidable Palladists.  It is unabashedly the one Val Lewton film I revisit time and time again, a movie best watched at 3 or 4 in the morning when the spell of its isolation and pessimism will really do a number on you.  (And I’ll guarantee you won’t want to take a shower until daylight breaks.)


James Vance said...

Ivan, this is a smart and wonderfully evocative piece. I can't believe that 7th Victim remains the one Lewton I've never seen. I think you've motivated me to finally get off the dime and seek it out. Thank you!

Murfyn said...

There are actually five parallelograms (no?) . . . I'm just sayin' . . .

J.C. Loophole said...

Excellent! Or should I say with a Peter Lorre affected accent: "Exxxceeellent!" This was one of my favorites of his also. This and for some reason Bedlam and I Walked with a Zombie were standouts in the box set WB released.

Citizen Screen said...

Wonderful write-up. You certainly peaked my interest with your detailed description of this film. It seems like a Lewton I can watch without losing sleep. But maybe that's wrong. We'll see.


Stacia said...

Terrific stuff, my friend. I've also noticed the similarities between Curse of the Demon and Seventh Victim, and keep meaning to make a double feature of it. I know I joked that you took this film before I got a chance to, but I'm glad you got Seventh Victim, seriously. I couldn't have done it half the justice you did.


The Seventh Victim is a great film, so misterious and with all that noir air. THanks for such a complete review, I remebered several moments vividly when I read tehm in your post.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Kristina said...

Thanks so much for this great post, I said elsewhere on the trick or treat run round the blogathon 'hood that 7th VICTIM is my fav Lewton, it's just so intensely creepy and frightening, plus a great cast ! he had (as you write) such mastery of evoking the unknown, which in turn the viewer fills in with their own personal fears, and that makes anything scarier than a graphic scene. Just now occurred to me, how often Lewton movies had a saying or quote on a plaque, a sign, or here, stained glass; nice way to sum up a point or foreshadow, likely inspired by low budgets but also sprinkles some mythic, poetic, dust on the stories too.
LOL at the pacifists punishing with death. guess everybody got a red line somewhere. Thanks for your enthusiasm and for helping us promo!!

Aubyn said...

I love The Seventh Victim. It might be my second favorite Lewton (first is Zombie). You did full justice to all the great moments of the film. One element of this film I especially love is how the story drifts so easily from character to character, making each of them distinct and interesting in the brief running time. Elizabeth Russell and Jean Brooks are wonderful, I wish they had more roles. Fantastic review, Ivan!

Stephen Reginald said...

Great job with this post. I like the way you showed the influence Lewton had on other filmmakers. The 7th Victim, for some, is an acquired taste. It isn't always appreciated upon first viewing. Of all of Lewton's films, the sense of doom is overwhelming. Thank you for taking part in the blogathon.

ClassicBecky said...

Really excellent piece, Ivan ... I can't think of anything sarcastic to say ... you've done a very insightful review of a movie I love as well. I too can't pass up watching this movie whenever it is on -- Victim and Zombie and his 2 best, in my opinion, different in milieu, but with the same eerie Lewton stamp. I particularly liked your phrase: "...a movie best watched at 3 or 4 in the morning when the spell of its isolation and pessimism will really do a number on you." That's really the only way to watch any Lewton film and experience it as it should be.